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Planners need actions now to shape better environmental planning post-Brexit

19 February 2019 Author: Richard Cowell

Brexit has presented the UK with all manner of thorny problems, not least the conundrum of what becomes of the significant body of EU environmental legislation, and the consequences for planning.

Research commissioned by the RTPI examines how the relationship between EU environmental legislation and the planning systems of the UK should evolve and improve, post Brexit. The sooner we face up to these issues the better because key aspects of domestic Brexit-driven environmental legislation are being formed now.

EU legislation has brought significant environmental improvements

The research shows that the interface between EU environmental directives and planning varies in form and intensity between directives and environmental policy area.

Planning is an aid to implementation for many directives (Air Quality, Water, Waste) and a prime delivery agent for EIA and SEA Directives, with the regulatory and strategic planning powers of the system also being important to the Habitats and Birds Directives. 

EU environmental legislation, like planning, has been subjected to a pervasive political and media discourse promoting ‘cutting red tape’, but closer examination reveals few specific, substantive ideas for streamlining and the dominance of a narrow, pro-business perspective. Environmental efficacy has not been the concern of most commentators.

The analysis concludes that EU environmental legislation has delivered environmental improvements in the UK. There is more debate about the effects of processes like EIA and SEA, but numerous studies have concluded that these still generate positive environmental improvements to projects and plans, and can provide greater transparency and accountability in decision-making.

Two further points emerge from this review. Firstly, it is difficult to separate the effects of EU environmental legislation in a narrow sense from the social and national political context in which it is interpreted and implemented. Given this, Brexit presents an opportunity to address wider issues around the interface between environment and planning in the UK, including those with home-grown causes.

Secondly, what has made EU environmental policy relatively effective is the monitoring and enforcement provided by the European Commission, the European Court of Justice and other bodies. Questions thus arise as to the merits of retaining or recreating these regulatory features post Brexit, and how far they embrace planning.

Doubts over the effects of EIA and SEA

Most respondents to our interviews and focus groups believe that EU membership had underpinned significant improvements in environmental quality and raised levels of environmental protection.

They appreciated the purposive nature of EU legislation, its clear objectives and targets, its detachment from short-termist political pressures, and the way that it underpinned consistent practices.

There was more equivocation on the effects of EIA and SEA. Perceptions that procedures could be bureaucratic, complex, disproportionate and costly were commonly expressed.

Nevertheless, few respondents attributed the difficulties they experienced to details of EU-derived legislation. Other factors, like the lack of resources or experienced staff in planning authorities, could greatly affect the efficacy with which environmental measures supported planning and vice versa.

Possible future scenarios

Overall, respondents were very positive about a scenario in which firm environmental goals and standards were retained and the role of planning in delivering on them was enhanced.

They were almost equally positive about a scenario which gave local and national actors more flexibility in the means by which those goals were achieved.

Respondents were highly negative about scenarios that allowed more scope for goals to be softened, or derogations to be made, at the discretion of local and national decision-makers.

Different futures across the UK

Another key message is that devolution made the prospects for the future look very different across the constituent nations of the UK.

In Northern Ireland, there were stark concerns that any loss of EU environmental protections risked deepening the already major environmental governance gap. In Wales and Scotland, alignment with EU standards post-Brexit received strong political support, and steps had already been taken through domestic reforms to align planning with environmental outcome goals.

No explicit desire for change

Our research did not identify major, explicit pressure from the planning profession for change to EU environmental legislation and the way that it interfaces with planning. However, things will change and events are already unfolding which could affect which future scenario prevails.

The Environmental Bill (2018), proposals for a new environmental watchdog(s) to replace the EU, and the 25 Year Environmental Plan could help maintain a more EU-style, goal-focused system of environmental governance as the UK leaves the EU.

What is up for grabs is whether planning becomes incorporated within this new governance system and more aligned to achieving environmental goals, or whether Brexit allows planning policy-makers to increase their scope for discretion and flexibility, perhaps even extending that to environmental concerns like EIA and SEA formerly regulated by EU legislation.

The post-Brexit future of environmental planning is already in the making, and planners need to act quickly to promote the future they prefer.


Richard Cowell

Richard Cowell

Richard Cowell is Professor of Environmental Policy and Planning at Cardiff University.